What should be the limits for righting a wrong?
HARTFORD - There may be no more delicate surgery than rewriting history. No solitary action ever took place in a vacuum, without affecting other developments. Yet the increasing number of prognosis-negative events in the world of sports appears to demand some form of curative procedure, and Wednesday's ceremony here to reverse a 10-year-old Olympic gymnastics result represented the good intentions of officialdom to right a wrong.
Based on evidence that a female Chinese gymnast had violated the minimum-age rule at the 2000 Sydney Games, the International Olympic Committee took back China's team third-place medal and awarded it to the American team that had finished fourth.
"I'll ask you to close your eyes and think back to those Games and think about where you were and, this time, to put yourselves on that bronze-medal podium," IOC member Anita DeFrantz told the six U.S. team members before the ceremonial re-do in advance of the U.S. national championships.
In a way, the past was not fixed completely. "The forgotten victim," noted Dominique Dawes, one of the Americans who had just inherited the 2000 medal, "is that young girl from China" who lost the medal - not to mention her five Chinese teammates who were not found guilty of violating the age rule.
But by doing something about that underaged outlaw from the past, the IOC might well have helped fix the future, delivering the message that it would not tolerate a thumb on the scales of justice.
"You can't make it all right; you never can," said Roger Abrams, the Northeastern University law professor and author of the new book, "Sports Justice." "But in a public pronouncement of who won and who lost, when you have clean and convincing evidence, we can change [history]."
Napoleon said, "History is a set of lies agreed upon." And Abrams, like so many sports observers, acknowledges the tricky business of settling on the facts in current cases involving Alex Rodriguez's home-run total and Lance Armstrong's Tour de France record.
"In every single race, in every single sport, there are things which are known and things which are unknown and things that will become known," Abrams said. "Someone figured out that Alex Rodriguez had a total of 480-something home runs. And, that too, is rewriting history.
"But, in fact, we can count on historians to do that. Look what's going on now with the greatest cyclist of our time. Either a lot of people are ganging up on him, or a lot of history is going to be changed" based on a federal investigation of Armstrong's possible use of performance-enhancing drugs.
For years, the IOC has struggled with revisiting results possibly tainted by rules-breakers, often depending on the Court of Arbitration for Sport - a global Supreme Court in athletic affairs - to occasionally strip medals and delete records. But there is the danger of unintended consequences - such as passing down a medal that clearly was unjustly earned to an athlete who may or may not have bent the rules himself.
Legally, Abrams said, "at some point, it's better to have stability over correctness" by letting the record stand. "There is what we call the statute of repose; you can't go back, say, to the 1930s. At some point, you say, 'enough is enough.'"
"For a lot of people, redemption only comes at some other tribunal - when we die. The almighty has to set the record straight. But when you can do it, as they did in Hartford, you should do it."
Beyond that, so much is a matter of too-soon-to-tell.